• Children leaving home is a seismic shift for most parents

  • Counsellor Sandra Hilton reflects on her own feelings of grief and loss as she looks ahead to a new chapter of motherhood

Do you remember the film The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro? It was a modern fairytale – Beauty and the Beast remodelled in the 60s, where Sally Hawkins’ deaf mute character falls in love with, and rescues, a sea creature that is being experimented on at a US military facility. 

I love the title of the film….the - shape - of - water…..I roll those words over and over like a sweet on my tongue, savouring the juiciness and texture of each syllable. For, I think of water as not having shape. As an amorphous, vast being that trickles and pounds and laps and crashes and spills and flows. A moving living substance that defies shaping. But the title invites us to pause and examine this assumption. It says, let us not take things at face value – let us be open to a different way of seeing. 

For water, for all its expanse, also takes on the shape of its container. We pour it into a glass and its shape is of the glass. We run a bath and we have bath-shaped water. We dig a pond and its shape is of a pond. The shape of water is ever-changing. And it is both shaped and shaper. Moving water carves into its surroundings, etching ravines into mountains as it races down the rock, redefining coastlines as it edges inland. A powerful force of nature that finds and makes its own path. 

These are my mind wanderings as I transition through some seismic shifts in the shape of life as I have known it. My daughter has now finished exams and school and we have entered a liminal space between our old life and an as yet to be defined, new way of life. The containing shape of familiar routine is melting and life is spilling over into something more liquid. 

In some ways, it has a taste of the familiar long summer holiday stretching before us – endless days without a timetable, delights (and books) waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. But I know that once the days lolling in the garden or by the sea and the late summer nights chatting and playing games are done, then that shape changes irrevocably. The container of our two person, one dog home will hold one person and one dog and one large silent space full of all her and our incarnations over the last 19 years. 

In his interview with Krista Tippett at OnBeing, the poet Ocean Vuong recalls the practice that taught him how to prepare himself for life and work: “in many Asian American households, when you enter the house, you take off your shoes. Now, we’re not obsessed with cleanliness any more than anyone else, but the act is an act of respect. I’m going to take off my shoes to enter something important. I’m going to give you my best self. And I think, even consciously, when I read or give lectures or when I teach, I lower my voice. I want to make my words deliberate. I want to enter — I want to take off the shoes of my voice so that I can enter a place with care, so that I can do the work that I need to do." 

He writes of a conscious crossing of a threshold from one space into another, whether that is physical or metaphorical. I’m hoping that I can be conscious too, in this crossing of the ritual threshold of my daughter’s initiation as a woman, and my own initiation into a new phase of womanhood, where mothering is no longer my main role. I wonder what it means to take off my shoes here? I can feel a real temptation to do something else - to put on my running shoes and sprint through these coming months in a busy haze of projects and travel plans. I can feel that impulse in myself and others. People ask “what will you do?”, spoken with a knowing worried look and a quick move to reassure me that she will be OK and I will find things to occupy myself. 

But the truth is, I really don’t want to hurry through this. There’s too much to savour. Too many losses and sorrows to be held in the heartspace. Too much mud to wade through that will be compost for everything that is to grow next. Writer and community builder, Holiday Phillips delves into this in her searingly honest newsletter. She writes: “I have come to see that grief is not something to be withstood or used, but is, in fact, the process of digestion. The taking in of something fully, and letting it transform you...To find a hand to hold, take it in our own and say, this breaks my heart, and I know there is nothing I can do about it, and I am not asking you to do anything about it, but can our hearts break together for a little bit? This is grief. And we have forgotten her ways. How to wail. How to rage. How to gather in circles and cry. How to dance it through our bodies. And we must remember. Those of us who wish for the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, must remember.” 

Can our hearts break together for a little bit? What an invitation...to find ways to be together in our brokenness. To remember the ways of grief. We have lost this, as we have lost the art of ritual. I feel the deep pull of ritual to fully hold the enormity of this personal transition, as with any meaningful transition. Ritual akin to taking off my shoes so that a threshold may be crossed; so that there may be space for new stories to be written in both our lives, rather than a rehashing of old stories and memories that we cling to as a reminder of our lives together. 

Adrienne Rich wrote: “The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy.” She is writing about more than the physical loss of a child when she leaves home. She is writing of the split from our feminine nature and the imbalance in values in our culture. The separation from our feeling and spiritual nature that connects us to the deeper human experience. The split that must be healed for us to be whole. There are stories that illustrate this for us, most notably the mother-daughter myth of Demeter & Persephone. In this tale, which also explains the changing seasons on our earth, we learn of the deep connection between mother and daughter and of the descent of both as the daughter is lost. “Tell me what you do when you get lost….” prompts the poem. This is a time of getting lost. Of losing. 

As mothers have before me, as mothers will alongside me, and mothers after me, my heart will be breaking open. I will retreat. I will wail. I will descend as I remember what it is to grieve. I don’t want to be rescued or reassured. I want to see if there is space for all of this. In me. In us.

Life will find a new shape – and I will be shaped in new ways as sure as water sculpts the hillside. 60 days remain from the time of writing until the day she leaves. 60 days of life in its known shape which I will be savouring one by one. I wish you all a shapeshifting summer. See you on the other side.

Sandra Hilton is a verified Welldoing online counsellor 

Further reading

Once a mother, always a mother? The challenges of being a mother to adult children

Why are mother-daughter relationships so complex?

Mothers and letting go: why weddings bring up such complicated feelings

Can you be too close to your daughter?